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Why Ending Prison Sexual Violence Won’t Be Easy

10:16 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

prison cellIt’s an optimistic headline: “Prison Rape: Obama’s Program to Stop It”. It leads into a comprehensive New York Review of Books article on three recently released Federal government publications.  Two of these documents examine sexual abuse in the nation’s detention centers while the other outlines the Department of Justice’s regulations for eliminating prison rape. All three aim to address the appalling number of people—young and old, female and male, citizen and those awaiting deportation— who  routinely suffer sexual violence while in lockup, an estimated 209,000 plus every year according to the Justice Department.

So where’s the optimism? The guidelines established by the Obama administration are—on paper, at least—good ones. As the reviewers David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow (both staunch advocates for victims of prison sexual assault) note, the new recommendations address pivotal issues: how detention centers are staffed, how those staffs are trained in sexual abuse issues, and how inmates are supervised. Equally important is how offenders are evaluated for their potential as either sexual prey or predator. This provision is crucial in protecting young offenders, especially LGBT youth who are in greater danger of sexual harassment and abuse by peers and adult inmates. Once this information is obtained housing can be assigned based on vulnerability, which in the case of minors means not being housed with adults. There are also new standards on how prisoners can report sexual assault and on how that information is handled and investigated by staff. Kaiser and Stannow write that if these standards are successful—“and we believe they will be”—then the incidences of prison rape will be reduced dramatically.

But I can’t share their optimism. I wish I could. My skepticism stems from the way in which these regulations are to be enforced.  Enforcement will be the responsibility of the state departments of corrections and the correctional staff in charge of prisons and jails.

Read the rest of this entry →

The Harm We Do: Kids in Solitary Confinement

8:06 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

Solitary. (photo: TheGiantVermin / flickr)

When most Americans hear the familiar constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means, at least to them. Hanging. Flogging. Chopping a hand off. Chain gangs.

Putting juvenile offenders in solitary confinement is high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment.” What else do you call locking up fifteen, sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never leaving their cells? “All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the adult county jail where I taught high school students proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). It was true. Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small enclosed rec area. All an inmate’s needs were met, except for the most essential: human contact of any kind.

These conditions are intolerable for anyone and are replicated nationally in our jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the US has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. But locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold; whose body at times practically vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control; whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. It’s recently released “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States” documents the overuse of solitary confinement with minors and its devastating effects on them, effects heightened by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience those “profound effects.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because corrections deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or ADHD. Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything else does in prison. Walls were scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15, 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. Once in isolation they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys who would come to class shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant, in fresh county oranges, now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they woke up and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own sides of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the Department of Justice investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and that the average stay in isolation for juveniles was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” the mental health of these young people worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

I don’t know how many people get the irony involved here, but I do know that the kids I taught did, even though they never “got” irony in class: We lock children up in inhuman conditions in order to teach them how to act human. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a far different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about ever getting justice, and more prone to violence. What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm these young people’s bedrock belief that America as it is now has no place for them other than behind bars?


Originally appeared in Youth Today

Keeping Locked-up Kids and Their Families Connected

5:52 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

Arizona’s legislature recently passed a law charging prison visitors a onetime $25 fee as a way to help close the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Middle Ground Prison Reform, a prison advocacy group, challenged the law in court as a discriminatory tax, but a county judge upheld its constitutionality.

Fees like that, slapped on prisoners and their families, couldn’t be more counterintuitive. But then again, so many of our criminal justice policies are just that. Since it is mostly the poor, the desperately poor who fill US prisons, the $25 fee is one more economic hardship offenders’ families have to struggle with. It becomes another bill they have to scramble to pay—that is if they can.

These kinds of charges (and Arizona isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to shift the cost of incarceration to the poor) have even graver consequences. When a family can’t pay the fee their contact with their loved one is limited, essentially cutting an offender off from the only supports he or she has in the outside world.

Psychologists have long known how central it is for an individual to have nurturing people in his or her life in order to develop emotionally, psychologically and socially. This need for a supportive network is even more essential when we talk about the young people who are locked away from family and loved ones in our nation’s prisons and detention centers.

As anyone who has worked with kids in the penal system knows on a gut level, it is crucial to have families and other supportive community members involved in young offenders’ lives as they serve their time. Now, that commonsense intuition has been given empirical strength by studies done by such juvenile justice groups as the Vera Institute of Justice which have demonstrated that maintaining young people’s connection to families is a major factor in helping kids stay out of jail once they are released.

But it’s easy to question whether these families are really such a positive influence. After all, if they were doing such a great job what are their kids doing in jail?

It’s an easy assumption to make until you see some of those family members in the prison visiting room with their sons and daughters. I got to do that at least twice a year when the jailhouse high school where I taught for ten years in a county adult facility had its open house for families and caregivers.

The place was packed with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, or the people who stepped into those roles when circumstances—AIDS, death, addiction, incarceration, abandonment, all the things that ravage the lives of the poor and disenfranchised—demanded it. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. Meals had to be missed. Second jobs skipped. Long cross-county bus rides with tickets to pay for, transfers to be negotiated, at night, often in bad weather. The grandmother of one of my students, Leon, a skinny 15 year old who was finally making progress in class, had to travel over an hour on three buses to get there. It was a trip I knew she faithfully made twice a week to see her grandson. “I wouldn’t miss a visit with my boy for anything,” she told me, reaching over and giving Leon’s hair a playful tug. “But now you tell, Mr. Chura, how’s he doin in class?” That set Leon squirming.

It was a conversation I had over and over during those family visits. Miguel’s uncle who gave me his phone number and urged me to call him if Miguel wasn’t in school. Luis’ mother, frail and  in a wheelchair, holding her son’s hand, telling me how when Luis got out of jail she was moving her whole family out of state to get away from the gangs that ran wild in the streets. “I just want my boys to be safe,” she said, her English halting but her fear and determination palpable.

It was hard to hear in the visiting room sometimes with people chattering in several different languages, children running around, little brothers squealing when their big brother in his funny orange jump suit picked them up, mothers crying, locked-up sons trying to explain, promise, console. It was hard to hear but it was easy to know what was going on: Families—fragile, fragmented, strained, mending—were desperately trying to stay a family.

Many of those visitors would be willing to admit that they hadn’t done such a good job at maintaining the family bond, but that they did the best they could given the problems they had to face. Like Luis’ mother the determination was there but the resources weren’t. If we as a nation are serious about reducing crime (and not just by increased incarceration) it is important that we not put more obstacles in the way of young inmates’ families but rather that we give them the opportunities and resources to develop and sustain those crucial connections. It’s an investment that’s worth losing 25 bucks over.

Originally appeared on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

First the Good News: At-risk Kids (May) Get Some Justice

9:15 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

There’s been some good news in the media lately for anyone who cares about kids and justice. Federal statistics show that the number of juvenile offenders in jail has dropped by at least 25%. Along those same lines, the New York Times recently reported that New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has called for moving most juvenile cases from criminal court to family court, where kids will get more help than punishment, thus adding his voice to the excellent work of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. In the Boston Globe, criminologist James Alan Fox wrote that the Massachusetts law that requires all juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life without parole “has not reduced juvenile murder”—and he has the numbers to prove it. And, supporting all these concerns, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration hits hard at the waste of both taxpayer money and human potential when states lock up young offenders.

Good news, right? So why with all this good news and media attention do I still get cranky about kids in adult jails? Because the 1962 New York State statue setting the age for criminal responsibility at 16 is still law. It is still law even though it was supposed to be a temporary measure until research was conducted (the research was, of course, never done). I’m still cranky because in Massachusetts 59 people are serving life sentences with no chance of ever getting out for crimes committed when they were too young to vote, some of them when they were too young to drive. Because a recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans think crime is worse than it was last year despite data showing the opposite. Because lawmakers respond more to the electorate’s fears than to commonsense and compassion.

But I’ll give you an even better reason why I’m cranky. I’ve seen firsthand what happens to young people caught up in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, studies are conducted (or not), reports are written, and statistics analyzed; pundits study the issues and experts testify before commissions.

For ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county jail and watched how the penal system corrupted and eroded their humanity. That’s easy to do when you take away people’s identity. Give them a number instead of a name; call them “criminal,” “inmate,”  “thug,” and you take away their dignity—and their rights—the way we do when we label people “illegals.” Suddenly it’s okay to stop someone and demand their “papers,” to deny their families medical care, their children an education and the protections of the law.

The locked-up kids I taught were forced to eat food banned in public schools years earlier. To go without eyeglasses they needed to read, to navigate safely in a perilous environment, eyeglasses they had when they were booked and somehow never got back to them.  Worse yet, many of these young people went without the psychotropic medications they had been on for such conditions as depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit, and psychosis. When those untreated conditions made them hard to handle they were punished, thrown into solitary confinement, where, with no human interaction or mental health treatment, things only deteriorated.

I had students come to class with jaws swollen, and not from some brawl on the block the way you might expect would happen when you lock up together 40 or so teenage boys. The swelling was because of an abscessed tooth, and there was no dentist to take care of it because he only came every other week, or because the sick call form I helped them fill out somehow “got lost.”

Other medical treatment, when it was available, was often perfunctory and inadequate. One young man I worked with, Toro, a young Guatemalan who was always respectful to anyone in authority, received 30 day lockdown—23 hours alone in a cell with a half hour to clean up and a half hour to do PT—because he refused to take the unidentified pills the nurse was giving him. “All I wanted to know was what the pills were for,” he told me. “I didn’t know. I’d never taken them before and nobody would tell me.”

None of us, no matter what conditions we’re forced to live in, easily gives up our humanity, and the young men and women I saw at the county penitentiary were no different. But their resources—family, education, community, health, spirituality—the kind of resources that help all of us hold firm to who we are, were meager even before they were incarcerated. Maintaining even a kernel of humanity in the face of such daily deprivation was near to impossible.

If it all sounds bleak that’s because it is. But I say let the good news roll—the reports, the endorsements, the calls to action—but let’s do something about the harsh, demeaning, counterintuitive prison conditions we force young people to live in while insisting that they grow and change. Until then, whether it’s the 45,873 16- and 17-year olds arrested in New York last year or the 57 juveniles serving life without parole in Massachusetts, or just one kid locked up somewhere in the country, I guarantee I’ll be cranky, very cranky.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

Changing the World One Book at a Time

10:24 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

She was pretty upfront about it: she didn’t want me there.

“It’s not you personally,” Marge explained. “It’s the book.”

Marge was the moderator, researcher, engine, really, of a local reading group. She was good at what she did, I was told, and I believed it. She was pretty thorough at listing all the reasons why she didn’t want to read or recommend to the group my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my ten years teaching teenagers in adult detention.

“The title, for one. It’s all wrong. Even the third graders I used to teach would know that it wasn’t correct,” she started off. “It’s just poor grammar. And what about that cover? It put me off.”

I happened to think Beacon Press did a terrific job with the cover—the title, in hip-hop script on a blue background and, in profile, the photograph of a young African American male, sixteen at most, looking out at the reader with a somewhat challenging look yet with the inevitable vulnerability of any teenager.

But I knew where Marge was headed.

“Besides, I don’t like the topic, sounds too depressing,” she said. And then she got blunt. “What’s it got to do with me?”

I’d heard the objections before, although not quite so frankly stated. I did some mild reassuring, but I didn’t work at it. I knew that Marge had called to invite me to speak to the group despite her opposition. Two friends who were a part of the book club had read the book, liked it, and lobbied for it.

When I arrived at the community center the night of my talk, I thought things might have changed.

“We don’t usually do refreshments, but I thought this time it might be nice,” Marge said, greeting me warmly at the door, then leading me to a table covered with plates of home-baked cookies and pastries, a coffee urn, and two pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

And indeed things had changed. At first when Marge introduced me, she was true to form. I winced as she laid out all her objections and doubts about the book in excruciating detail. “Oh boy, what kind of night is this going to be?” I thought.

But then, with equal clarity, Marge told the group of about thirty how the book had changed her thinking and answered all her doubts. How she understood now that the title reflected the fractured yet still human lives of many of the kids I wrote about, especially Ray, the young man who was damaged by years of abandonment and drugs, and from whom I took the quote for the title. She said how the cover itself mirrored these kids’ lives—on the one hand it showed the fragile world of childhood with the book jacket’s blue background and playful lettering, and on the other, the gritty world of the streets with that scowling, discontented-looking young man. How, yes, the stories that she expected to depress and alienate her did make her sad at times, as she learned about these children’s lives in and out of jail. Yet at the same time they made her smile and laugh and admire those same children for their resilience and generosity and willingness to forgive society for what it had done to them, although society didn’t forgive the children for their mistakes.

“It was pretty obvious to me by the end of the book that I had a lot more in common with those kids than I could ever have imagined,” Marge concluded.

Listening to Marge, I smiled to myself and began to wonder why I’d made the trip there (well, there were those delicious-looking brownies), since she was telling the group all the things I would have said.

And I wondered if Marge realized that what had happened to her is what I always hoped would happen whenever I handed one of my locked-up students a book: their perceptions of the world would shift; that places they’d never been to, were excluded from, would open up to them; that people they’d never gotten the chance to meet, or who they refused to meet because of all the protective barriers they put up, would suddenly became more like them than they could have ever realized.

I didn’t think Marge, now, after reading the book, would mind being in the company of Warren, who, finally, at the age of fifteen and reading on a fourth-grade level, had completed his “first-ever book,” as he put it, or Frankie, who made it through a long stint in solitary confinement devouring the novels (all good ones, I might add) I brought him; or Larry, who began to see that even a life like his wasn’t foreign to the pages of literature after he finished reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

Readers like Marge and Warren and Frankie and Larry and all the others out there are the reasons why writers like me write their books and why teachers like me stay in the classroom despite the struggles. We want to do nothing less than change the world (and a few hearts while we’re at it) book by book.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

A Global Lesson in Hope: Concern for Justice Worldwide

5:56 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

"Boy and Spinning Globe" by Sprengben on flickr

"Boy and Spinning Globe" by Sprengben on flickr

In a six by eight foot jail cell there’s barely room for a bunk, a seatless toilet, and a postage-sized sink. The only other space you have in jail is in your head, and even that gets crowded with all the people you carry around in there who you resent for the things they did to you.

The world is pretty small when you’re locked up, especially if you’re a kid doing time with a healthy body that needs to move, energy sizzling through you like high tension wires, your emotions threatening to blow the power grid any second as you struggle with those nagging teenage questions, “Who am I?” “Why me?” It doesn’t help that the only answers you get come from walls and bars, gates and guards, and maybe that crowd of unreliable experts in your head.

Many of my jailhouse students lived that loneliness and isolation hour after hour, day after day, and for some, year after year until it was hard for them not to see the world as anything but confining, and brutally uncaring. It’s a vision that, as hard as they might work against it, too many of them carry throughout life.

Even though I taught high school in a county penitentiary for over 10 years and experienced in a minor way some of that same isolation and indifference I still know otherwise about the world: That there are people—teachers, social workers, clergy, parents, judges and lawyers—out there who care about real justice, not just for the “done to” but for the “doer” as well; who worry not only about “the system”—education, child welfare, juvenile and criminal justice—but about the kids, each individual kid, consigned to those systems.

But it’s hard a sell to young people whose world has taught them the opposite. Read the rest of this entry →

Kids in Jail: A Different Kind of Commencement

7:21 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

Now that all the high school graduations are over and the backyard barbeques celebrated, I’m finally coming down from the contact high of all that youthful exuberance and optimism.

It’s easy to get swept up into those good feelings. But now as I move into summer’s quieter months, I can’t help thinking about the high school students I taught in a county penitentiary and what “commencement” meant for them.

Success never came easily to my students. Why should it? They came from lives wrecked by poverty and discrimination. It tried to wreck their spirit, but it never could, not completely. In that way my students weren’t any different from the kids at our local high schools—like their peers, they believed that life was there for the shaping.  That faith in success, though, didn’t always translate onto the streets. So they got caught up in crime, got arrested, did their time.

When that time was served, their “commencement” was being released from jail. The “graduation ceremony” wasn’t much: Down to booking to sign papers, their clothes stuffed into black garbage bags. Then the booking officer handed the “graduate” bus money and delivered the keynote address, “Stay out of jail.”

And that’s exactly what they intended to do. My jailhouse students talked a lot about “starting over again,” and I believed each of them. Because while they were locked up, most worked to change things for the better. They studied for their diploma or GED. They worked at staying clean and sober. They grappled with the rage of disappointment that tore at their guts through anger management programs. If there was a thread of family life left, they reconnected with it.

When they hit the streets, they were determined to shake the dust—and smell—of prison off them forever. But the only thing that had changed while they were locked up was them, not the streets. There was nothing out there for them, no services, no resources, no one. The only things waiting were the same predator-prey food chain, the same joblessness, and the same lure of the streets with easy money.

I knew the litany these young people heard from corrections and probation officers: Get a job. Go to school. Stay away from your buddies (the only people who even remembered your name.) Stay away from your girlfriend (the only one glad to see you.) Stay in the house. Start over. Stay out of trouble. And I’ve watched more than one kid’s face fall when he was told that he had to find someplace else to live. He couldn’t live with his mother because his probation didn’t allow him to associate with anyone with a record, and since his brother, or uncle, or cousin was already there he needed to find another home.

It’s not hard to guess what all those demands sound like to a 16 year old fresh out of prison: Stop being the only person you recognize. Stop living your life.

I often tell people that the changes we demand of young ex-offenders are things most of us, even with all our assets, would find daunting. The isolation. The loneliness. The helpless rage of unreasonable expectations. Yet these kids are told to make those changes with no one to help or guide them.

It happens, though, if rarely—some kid takes the plunge into all that fear and dynamites his life apart.

Alex was one of those kids. The judge made it clear. This time no probation. Instead a full county bid. Next arrest, a long stretch in state prison. Even at 17 Alex knew that going back to the same neighborhood, the same friends and enemies would seal his fate. “I might as well stay here and wait for the next bus to state prison,” he tried to laugh it off but couldn’t.

I can’t tell you what happened, but something did. Everybody had given up on him, with good reason or not, but somehow he hadn’t. Alex had a cousin in California that he never met but who said he could come live with him. So at his “graduation” he hopped a cross country bus. However, there was nothing quixotic about his move. Alex had never been out of his own town except to go to various jails and detention centers. He knew he had to do it. It was a terrible struggle at first. The dirt jobs. The loneliness. The disorientation. The fears of failure. Eventually, though, the jobs got better and he signed up for college. Last I heard Alex was close to a real commencement.

Watching that final moment of triumph when our local high school graduates flung their caps into the air I imagined all the hands—of family, teachers, coaches, clergy, counselors—that over the years had made that moment possible.  Young ex-offenders at their “commencement” haven’t had, and don’t have that same net of hands. And yet, there are plenty of hands in each of their communities to help, if they only would. That way kids like Alex wouldn’t have to go 3,000 miles for a chance at a new beginning.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

Juvenile Justice One Kid at a Time: A Success Story, Interrupted

11:32 am in Uncategorized by davidchura

The statistics are grim, but the reality behind those numbers is even grimmer for the many young people locked up in US adult prisons. Since publishing I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my years teaching in a New York county jail, I spend a lot of time writing, talking and hearing from families, professionals, and the young people themselves about the failures of our child welfare and criminal justice systems.

Depressing, discouraging stuff. That’s why I need to tell you about Andrew.  Andrew is a young African American in his late 20s. He’s got a home, an education, and a profession. Andrew is a success.

But it wasn’t always that way. As a very young child his schizophrenic mother was placed in long term care and Andrew was shuffled around to various family members until eventually he ended up in the foster care system. There he was moved from home to home to home. Then at 16 he was placed in an overcrowded and understaffed foster care facility where kids like him were warehoused. But he supposed it was better than being homeless. At least he had food and shelter. He even learned some things, mostly how to get into trouble, serious trouble.

Andrew would be the first to admit that he did stupid stuff. You might say that the first time he got arrested, the time he hopped a cab with a buddy who then pulled a knife and robbed the cabby, really wasn’t his fault. But he wouldn’t agree. Wrong place, wrong time, still makes a crime. And there was no way to excuse the other felonies he committed after that, felonies that landed him in state prison.

Andrew was just another young, black male fulfilling the destiny society defined for him: broken-down family, raised in the ‘hood, poor, uneducated, unemployed and unemployable. America has a place for kids like him—jail or the grave.

But somewhere along the way he realized he didn’t want either fate. During one of his county bids he enrolled in school and got himself into counseling with our school social worker. He studied for his GED and achieved it. With that first taste of success Andrew peeked over the top of the box society had put him in and glimpsed a different way to live. He began to recognize in himself the young man the social worker kept hinting at to him: someone who had survived a mentally ill mom, a neglectful family, a broken foster care system, and a punishing criminal justice system; someone who was ripe to make changes. Through his own efforts and the social worker’s encouragement both while he was in jail and after he was released, Andrew began to do what he had to do to change.

And change he did. He enrolled in community college and excelled even while working 2 or 3 part-time jobs at a time to support himself. For awhile he slept in the back of the pizzeria where he worked or in a rented room he shared with a couple of other homeless young guys. After finishing his associate’s degree he earned a scholarship to a Bronx college where he received his BA in social work, again while holding down multiple jobs.

Andrew didn’t stop there. He got another scholarship, this time to Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Work. In 2008 he earned his MSW as well as the recognition of the New York State Social Work Educators Association as the “Social Work Student of the Year.”  He now works at a county Youth Bureau helping at-risk kids navigate the minefield of the streets.

Andrew is a success by anybody’s standards. By the standards of our penal system he’s a damn miracle. But we’re an unforgiving and shortsighted nation, and so our tenacious stereotypes of ex-offenders, reinforced by CORI laws which give employers the right to deny felons jobs, has limited Andrew’s possibilities in state social service agencies and academia. While interviewers acknowledge his personal, academic and professional accomplishments, that’s as far as it goes. In America, once a felon always a felon.

Andrew got where he is because of his resolve and hard work and because someone had faith in him and acted on that faith. Unfortunately our criminal justice system doesn’t provide that kind of support even though it is in the best interest of the society it is committed to protect.

But just because the prison system doesn’t—or won’t do it—that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook.  Teachers, social workers, youth advocates, clergy and their congregations, community activists, family members, neighbors, employers, concerned citizens, we all need to push to have these exclusionary laws changed; to challenge our own and society’s attitudes about ex-offenders; and to take a chance in whatever way we can on some kid once locked-up now locked-out of the world. One kid by one kid: It’s a slow, chancy process. Maybe it’s even futile. But then again, there’s always Andrew.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside